Anna sat on the old barstool, propping her elbows on the counter and swinging her legs back and forth as her mother cut rice flour dough into flat squares. Mama had cracked open the rusty window over the sink. Outside, it was fifteen below and the midst of Toronto winter, but in here, the kitchen was sweltering, steam swirling to the ceiling whenever they opened the oven door. Sweat beaded on Anna’s forehead but she stayed put, inhaling deeply. It smelled like a special occasion—her birthday, or Chinese New Year, or one of those rare occasions when her parents held parties and all their friends would cram into the living room, raucous with gossip and laughter, while the kids packed into Anna’s room for games, exalted at being allowed to stay up past midnight.
“Anna, don’t just watch, help me,” Mama snapped in Mandarin as she plopped a heap of dough down. She said “Anna” in an accented lilt, emphasizing each syllable so that it sounded more like “An-nah.”
“They don’t taste good unless you make them,” Anna protested, replying in English. She pinched a small piece of dough off one end, massaged it between her fingers, then rolled it into a miniature dough-man.
“How many kids are in your class? Do you think thirty-five is enough? Only some kids can have seconds,” Mama squinted, counting out little heaps on her cutting board. She reached up to brush the hair out of her eyes, leaving a streak of white flour across her forehead. “These Canadian schools. I don’t get why they can’t teach you something real instead of making parents do all the work.”
Her muttered grumbles barely registered with Anna. She’d heard them all before, and besides, it was just talk. She’d pleaded until Mama agreed to make her signature nuo mi desserts for her class’s holiday potluck. Mama had invented the recipe a few years ago after complaining about the cost and sugar and fat in all the prepackaged snacks that Anna loved. The nuo mi quickly became one of her and Baba’s favourites, and Baba always said Mama could make a feast out of just rice and water. Anna begged Mama to make more but Mama rarely had time since she had started working nights full-time. This was a rare treat and Anna’s delight couldn’t be dampened. She watched Mama’s deft hands wrap dough around small pieces of red bean or black sesame paste, then carefully coat each one with sugar and coconut flakes.
Mama caught Anna eyeing them and smiled despite herself. “You can have just one.”
Anna picked up one of the nuo mi, blowing on it and passing it back and forth between her hands to disperse the heat. She resisted the urge to sink her teeth into it immediately—she could still remember the peeling layers on the roof of her mouth from the last time she made that mistake.
“What should we call these, Mama?”
“I don’t know. What’s nuo mi in English?”
“Glu-ti-nous rice flour,” Anna sounded out loud, reading the English lettering on the flour’s packaging. “That’s weird. Let’s just call it ‘Coconut nuo mi.’”
“That’s a good name.” Mama dumped the pans in the sink and rinsed her hands. She wiped them on her apron and checked her watch distractedly. “Now go get ready for bed. It’s already nine and I have to get to my shift.”
Anna left their apartment the next morning cradling her saran wrapped baking tray filled with round nuo mi balls, each tucked neatly into a paper liner, all carefully wedged together. She set the tray down on the carpeted hallway to lock the door behind her. An upside down fu, a Chinese symbol of luck, hung on their door year-round. At Anna’s insistence, Mama had put up a wreath which almost obscured the fu completely; only the gold lettering at the centre peeked through.
It had snowed incessantly overnight and the sidewalks outside their apartment complex hadn’t been shovelled yet. Anna lifted the tray high and tread in pre-existing footprints to her school bus stop a few streets away. Their family had lived here for three years but Anna had just switched schools last year, from the school just down the street to one she had to bus to. Mama used to grumble about her old school, and she had been delighted when she somehow found a way to get Anna into the “good school” halfway through fourth grade. Anna wasn’t so sure—not only was it more inconvenient to get to her new school, but she was also lonelier. She didn’t like how her parents were different than her classmates’. They spoke broken English and stood off to the side during parent-teacher conferences or school events, while everyone else’s families seemed to know each other. She had to admit though that this school looked nicer; it was renovated, the textbooks were new, the library better stocked, and there were so many supplies that the kids rarely had to fight over markers or things like that. And she did enjoy looking at all the big houses with their lush gardens on her bus rides every day. She would peer into their windows as they flashed by, catching glimpses of cozy libraries and grand dining rooms, imagining that it was her family who lived there.
There were only a few buses for the school that picked up kids like her, who weren’t from the neighbourhood, so Anna quickly got to know the kids on her route. Sometimes, she felt more at home on her bus rides than at school itself. Her stop was one of the last on the morning route, so the bus was already full when she got on. Rows of familiar faces were bundled up in parkas; their breaths fogging up the air inside as the bus’s old heating system fought the cold. She waved to those who called out her name while she made her way to her usual seat. The kids around her eyed her tray of treasures.
“What is that?”
“Coconut nuo mi. My mom made them,” she said, proud.
“Never heard of it,” a sixth-grader sitting across the aisle said, but Anna hardly noticed amid the clamour.
“Wanna trade?” Her seatmate, Lena, asked once the others lost interest. She wasn’t in Anna’s class, but they’d been bus mates since Anna transferred last year and played together almost every recess. Lena was Polish and held a platter for her own class party filled with something makowiec, which Anna couldn’t pronounce.
“You can have one. I need to save the rest for my class.” Anna carefully peeled back the saran wrap and handed one to Lena, who carefully cut a piece of makowiec with a plastic knife and gave it to Anna. Lena popped the nuo mi into her mouth and it disappeared in a single bite. She turned to Anna with a wide smile, revealing teeth that were stained with red bean filling while Anna licked sugary crumbs off her own lips. The two of them erupted into giggles.
She guarded the tray meticulously during the bumpy ride, held it close to her chest as they disembarked in the parking lot and jostled through the main entrance. She could already envision her classmates’ compliments and pictured them reaching for seconds. Everyone said her mother was a good cook—Baba said he’d fallen in love the first time Mama made him dinner. Anna’s friends from her old school loved visiting because of the meals Mama whipped up for them. She couldn’t wait to show off Mama’s cooking at her new school.
Inside the school lobby, a fake Christmas tree was garnished with plastic ornaments and each hall was graced with chains of construction paper garlands. Anna was the only bus kid in Mrs. Anderson’s fifth-grade class, so she was often the last to arrive. Today the room was overflowing with excitement. She took her seat amid loud chatter and excited declarations of Christmas plans just before the bell rang and Mrs. Anderson clapped for order. Still, the class crackled with anticipation all morning as the students threw furtive looks to the side of the room where numerous platters beckoned.
Three long periods passed before finally the lunch bell rang. The classroom exploded with unrestrained energy. Mrs. Anderson told them to “keep it down” but with a smile that let them know they had free rein.
Anna brought her tray over to the other desserts. The thirty-three pieces of nuo mi were perfect, each enticingly sprinkled and elegant in their paper liners. She printed “Coconut nuo mi” on cardstock in her neatest writing and propped the label in front of her tray. Soon, the children were ransacking the long table of food, ripping apart foils, wrappers and lids, piling their goods onto flimsy paper plates.
Anna retreated to the back of the room, her plate stacked high with pizza, a burger, chocolate cake, a brownie, and a nuo mi perched on top of it all. She curled up on a bean bag chair next to Jasmine and Naomi, her only friends in this class. They were comparing their upcoming vacations and trying to guess their Christmas presents but Anna was more interested in eating these treats that Mama rarely allowed at home. Christmas at home was like any other day and she wouldn’t be going anywhere after all. Receiving presents—or in her case, red pocket money—would have to wait until January or February, whenever the Lunar New Year happened to be this year.
“What is this?” A high-pitched voice pierced through the classroom’s bustle. It was Meredith, who had a flair for the dramatic, tossing her tawny ponytail back with her mouth twisted in disdain. Anna sighed as her classmates turned towards Meredith, giving her the attention she sought. Meredith held up her napkin, wrapped around something she had spat out. From the back of the room, it looked like black and white mush. Then Anna realized with a sinking feeling that it was her nuo mi. “I think this is raw,” Meredith announced.
“Eww, what is that?” Meredith’s friend echoed.
“Let me try, let me try!” Some boys, rambunctious, ran over to the table and grabbed fistfuls of the nuo mi. The paper liners they were nestled in flew off and scattered across the floor.
“It’s gooey,” one declared. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand, smearing the red bean filling across his mouth like blood, then chucked the other half away. It soared in a perfect arc and landed in the trash can with a definitive thump.
“I kinda like it,” another ventured.
“Gr-oss, Jason likes raw food!” Meredith said in a singsong. The class giggled. Jason shrugged, chewing vigorously.
“That’s enough, I can hear you from all the way down the hall. Quiet!” Mrs. Anderson emerged in the doorway and hollered.
The kids drifted back to their small groups. Jasmine and Naomi turned to Anna with stunned looks. “They’re not raw. It’s supposed to be like that,” Anna whispered. The girls nodded, seemingly sympathetic. But Anna noticed that Jasmine left hers untouched and Naomi had only taken a small bite before she threw it out.
The containers were almost empty now. A few stray pepperonis were all that remained of the pizza. The burger station was a mess of ketchup and crumbs. Of the desserts, the Walmart brand mini-cupcakes had been demolished, and the brownies were just dark smudges on aluminum. Besides a few slices of Mrs. Anderson’s carrot cake, only Anna’s nuo mi were mostly untouched. Anna counted twenty-four in the tray. They were lopsided, strewn haphazardly, their spherical forms caved in from various impacts. One had been crushed, its red bean filling exploding outwards like a crime scene.
“Everyone, time to clean up,” Mrs. Anderson called out. She started putting lids back on containers. Anna turned her back and busied herself removing dirty plates from nearby desks, hiding her face behind her hair. Mrs. Anderson inspected the cardstock with Anna’s neat printing, pulled some aluminum foil that had belonged to another dish over her tray, then called out her name and handed it over. It was almost as heavy as it had been that morning.
Anna quickly tucked the tray under her chair, grateful that the nuo mi were now covered up. Though as she sat, she grew certain that everyone knew they were hers. Who else would bring such foreign food? She was distracted and silent as the restless class suffered through the final lesson. When Mrs. Anderson suddenly called on her to read aloud, she flinched, then fumbled with her book, staring at it but unsure of where they had left off. Every kid in the class turned her way. She felt the nuo mi’s burning presence beneath her legs, so she crossed her ankles in an attempt to obscure them more. A soft snicker rose from the back of the room, and she was sure that someone had recognized the tray, that they were gossiping about her right now and would blurt out that those strange, gooey, inedible lumps belonged to her. Naomi poked her from behind and whispered, “Third paragraph.” She found the line, stuttered over a few sentences, then Mrs. Anderson moved on to the next reader. Anna slumped back into her chair.
The class was dismissed promptly at three-fifteen to whoops of delight. The room emptied out immediately, kids shouting goodbyes to each other as they streamed out the doors, the adrenaline of freedom coursing throughout the school. Anna packed her bag one item at a time. Jasmine and Naomi yelled, “Merry Christmas!” to her from the doorway as they strode out together. When she was the last student in the room, Anna retrieved the tray from beneath her chair. She didn’t respond to Mrs. Anderson’s goodbye and kept her head down as she left. She crept down the emptied halls. Construction paper ornaments lay trampled on the ground like oversized confetti.
Her school bus was the last one in the parking lot, and the driver honked at her as she emerged. She rushed onto the bus which was as cacophonous as the school had been minutes ago. This time no one took notice of her as she slipped back into the seat next to Lena. She threw her backpack on the ground and slumped down with her arms crossed. She cradled the tray still, but she could feel the remaining nuo mi sliding around as the bus reversed out of the lot. She couldn’t help but notice that Lena’s platter was empty.
Lena was chipper and didn’t seem to notice Anna’s misery. Instead, she asked, “You still have some of that coconut stuff?”
“Yeah,” Anna was glum. “Take whatever you want.”
Lena pulled back the foil and plucked one nuo mi out then another, unperturbed by their wounded state. When she had had enough, she licked her teeth with satisfaction and gave Anna a big grin. Anna forced a smile back. She couldn’t help the doubt that crept in. Was Lena just being nice? No one else had liked her nuo mi, after all.
After Lena waved goodbye and Anna got off at her stop, the tray was still heavy in her hands. Mama would be waking up around now, probably peeling herself off the couch where she fell asleep still in her work uniform. “How was your day?” Mama always asked, though more as a ritual as she was often too tired to listen. She would prepare a plate of sliced fruit for Anna, then start on dinner so that it would be ready for Baba when he came home. Anna headed back towards her brick apartment building, dragging her feet through gray slush that layered the sidewalks. She knew that today Mama would also ask, “How was the potluck? Did your friends like the nuo mi?”
Dread settled into her. The elevator doors opened on her floor and instead of heading left towards her unit, she turned right. She thought of Mama’s haggard face and her calloused hands rolling the dough last night, the way she had fretted over making enough. She thought of Meredith’s sneer, seared into her memory, how she had spat out the nuo mi in front of everyone. Down the long, musty corridor with its outdated brown carpet, past the gray doors embellished with wreaths and holly, all the way to the garbage chute. The laughter. Jasmine and Naomi’s silence. Each a tiny betrayal. Anna pulled on the chute’s metal latch. She unwrapped the aluminum foil from her tray and tilted it, watching the nuo mi tumble off and disappeared into the chute’s dark maw. She let go of the latch and it slammed shut, exhaling a breath that stunk of rotting waste.
Anna turned and paced down the hallway. Her arms trembled and she felt an uneasy ache in her stomach. Outside her door, she paused for a long moment, then steadied her shaking hands and unlocked her door.
Sophia Wen is a 1.5th generation, Chinese-Canadian immigrant. By day, she is a resident physician. By night, she is working on her Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto.
Anderson Lee is an artist in Vancouver, British Columbia. As a graduate of the University of British Columbia, he has spent his youth designing and writing about his Asian Canadian heritage, producing numerous short stories and illustrations for magazines and literary anthologies. He was the editor of Perspectives Newspaper, a bilingual English-Chinese language publication.